Steve Beshear, Kentucky Governor, Could Show President Obama The Reelection Ropes
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Kentucky is a red state with two Republican senators, a Republican state Senate, and a recent history of voting for GOP presidential candidates by landslide margins.
And yet the Democratic statewide ticket here is expected to sweep to victory on Election Day next Tuesday, led by incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear and lieutenant governor candidate Jerry Abramson, the former longtime mayor of Louisville, Kentucky's largest city.
The question for national Democrats is clear: Are there political survival clues for a beleaguered president named Barack Obama?
After conversations with politicians here and in Washington, the answer is: It's not simple, but yes.
This is the Kentucky playbook: Decry partisan gridlock and blame it on the GOP; advertise your own absence of ideological fervor and your focus on nuts-and-bolts approaches; and tout whatever you have accomplished to create jobs and sound social programs, no matter how small, even if overall conditions haven't improved much.
In other words, show that you try hard, that you've had some good results, and that you have a positive attitude and are not merely shouting "no."
It's worth noting that the Republican kingpin of Kentucky is none other than the GOP kingpin of Washington, D.C., Sen. Mitch McConnell of Louisville. That makes the Democrats' search for strategic guidance here more urgent and more relevant to 2012. It's also worth noting that the Obama 2012 campaign's top in-house fundraising operative in Chicago is Matthew Barzun, recently returned from his post as U.S. ambassador to Sweden and a member of a prominent Louisville family.
There are, to be sure, special circumstances here that make it harder to apply Kentucky rules to the rest of the country.
One is that the Republican gubernatorial candidate, state Senate President David Williams, is widely disliked on a personal basis. In an intimately run place such as Kentucky, where people are inclined to say they remember your daddy, a cousinly ease is required in the rural courthouse squares.
Williams doesn't have it. He is considered brusque, short-tempered and imperious -- useful qualities in, say, a mayor of New York City, but not in a governor who, among other things, crowns the queen of the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival every year.
"Williams is kind of a difficult personality," said Al Cross, a veteran columnist for the Courier-Journal in Louisville and a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. "And that comes across."
Another reason why it's hard to do a straight analogy is this: The top of the ticket in Kentucky has a record of running away from grand ideological statements and big, sweeping plans -- unlike Obama. "What they are showing in Kentucky is that Democrats can sell and prosper by being moderates in the middle," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. "They aren't seen as ideologues."
Gov. Beshear and his running mate are known as can-do moderates. Beshear signed off on construction of a creationist theme park -- not because he is a creationist, but because he is a job creationist.
His running mate, Abramson, was a popular mayor of Louisville for 21 years, known for his practical and bipartisan work on housing, downtown development and business-friendly tax deals that drew, and kept, businesses such as UPS, Ford and GE.
And then there is the charm factor. Beshear is a good ol' boy of the old school, the kind of guy you'd see at the lunch counter. Abramson -- who would be the first Jew elected to one of the two top statewide jobs in Kentucky -- looks like a prosperous, well-barbered guy in the good seats at the ballgame, but he's just as gregarious, and he's traveling the state from Pikeville to Paducah to talk about the jobs he has managed to bring to the Louisville area.
The president just doesn't have the campaign-trail touch of either of these guys.
But Louisville is where the campaign guidance comes in. Beshear took the unusual step of asking a Louisville native to run with him, even though candidates from the big city on the Ohio are a tough sell in the rest of Kentucky. He did it so that he could tell the rest of this rural state that the job-by-job, business-by-business story of Louisville could work elsewhere, in smaller cities and towns.
Nothing fancy, just putting one foot in front of the other. He and Abramson, for example, recently presided at a ceremony at the Ford plant in Louisville, where executives announced plans to add a third shift.
Ford didn't receive any bailout money, but the point -- for the president -- would have to be the same: It isn't about ideology, it's about jobs. That's a message Obama can sell at his end of the auto industry.
GOP candidate Williams, by contrast, made his reputation -- and, in fact, built the GOP into majority status at the state Senate -- by vehemently opposing any Democratic initiatives to deal with the state's troubled economic and social programs, even ones that otherwise have considerable bipartisan support. His unaffectionate nickname is the "Butcher from Burkesville" (his hometown).
At a time when the economy is sluggish -- as in most places other than the Beltway, Manhattan and Silicon Valley -- any sense of forward motion matters, and people who stand in the way aren't popular.
"The problem voters see in Williams is that he seems to care more about partisan victories than helping people in this state, and that is the message we have taken everywhere as we talk about what we have done, and what Steve and I can do," Abramson told me.
Substitute "McConnell" for "Williams," and maybe Obama has a strategy.
It works in Kentucky.
CORRECTION: This article previously stated that if elected, Jerry Abramson would be the first Jewish person to hold statewide office in Kentucky. Jonathan Miller, who served as state Treasurer from 1999 to 2007, is also Jewish. The error has been corrected.